Sacred Sunday: 12th Century Mosaics in San Clemente, Rome

Interior view 1130s Mosaic San Clemente, Rome

Interior view
1130s
Mosaic
San Clemente, Rome

The present church of San Clemente was constructed to replace the Early Christian basilica from the 4th century. It was built by the cardinal and priest of San Clemente, Anastasius, who is documented between 1102 and 1125, and it rises above its predecessors’s centre and left side aisles.

The structure was completed and consecrated around 1118-19. The mosaic decoration of the apse is generally dated to this time. However, recent studies suggest a a considerably later date in the 1130s.

The mosaic in San Clemente was the first great apse mosaic to have been produced in Rome in roughly two hundred years. It incorporated any number of familiar motifs from Early Christian mosaics, but combined them with distinctly medieval pictorial elements to create a new synthesis.

Overall view of the apse 1130s Mosaic San Clemente, Rome

Overall view of the apse
1130s
Mosaic
San Clemente, Rome

The central motif in the apse mosaic is a Crucifixion, with Mary and John the Evangelist flanking the cross and turned toward it in mourning. The cross is rooted in a large acanthus bush, and in a dark blue clearly stands out against the gold ground. Twelve white doves, pictured in profile, adorn the cross as symbols of the apostles.

The vines leading out from the acanthus bush uncurl into a total of fifty round volutes across the entire surface of the calotte. Four rivers of paradise appear beneath the acanthus bush, two stags drink from them; and various kinds of birds, including peacocks are depicted. All these motifs are derived from Early Christian iconography.

At the outer ends of the base strip stand the familiar depictions of Bethlehem and Jerusalem. Twelve lambs emerged from them to flank the Lamb of Christ in friezelike rows.

The mosaic in San Clemente was the first great apse mosaic to have been produced in Rome in roughly two hundred years. It incorporated any number of familiar motifs from Early Christian mosaics, but combined them with distinctly medieval pictorial elements to create a new synthesis.

Apse mosaic (detail) 1130s Mosaic San Clemente, Rome

Apse mosaic (detail)
1130s
Mosaic
San Clemente, Rome

The church of San Clemente was rebuilt over the buried remnants of the destroyed old basilica on the order of pope Pascal II in 1110. The rich furnishings of the church reflected the formal repertoire of early Christian churches. Many of the erstwhile were integrated in the new project. The mosaic representing the Cross of Life is one of the new works. Its gleaming blue recalls the art of “email”, or baked enamel. Mary and John flank the upright of the cross, at whose foot emerge the four rivers of paradise. Twelve white doves embodying the Apostles perch on the joist and crossbeam.

Apse mosaic (detail) 1130s Mosaic San Clemente, Rome

Apse mosaic (detail)
1130s
Mosaic
San Clemente, Rome

Apse mosaic (detail) 1130s Mosaic San Clemente, Rome

Apse mosaic (detail)
1130s
Mosaic
San Clemente, Rome

The cross is rooted in a large acanthus bush, and in a dark blue clearly stands out against the gold ground. Four rivers of paradise appear beneath the acanthus bush, two stags drink from them; and various kinds of birds, including peacocks are depicted.

Apse mosaic (detail) 1130s Mosaic San Clemente, Rome

Apse mosaic (detail)
1130s
Mosaic
San Clemente, Rome

The vines leading out from the acanthus bush uncurl into a total of fifty round volutes across the entire surface of the calotte. Some of the spandrels between the volutes are filled with small figures. In the lower section these include the Latin church fathers Gregory, Jerome, Augustine and Ambrose, who are identified by name. They are dressed as monks and hold open books. Also strewn among the vine’s branches are numerous birds and other ornamental elements like decorative flowers, oil lamps, baskets of fruit, and vases.

Rural scenes – a woman feeding hens and their chicks, shepherds with their herds of sheep and goat – appear on the strip of ground beyond the peacocks on either side.

Apse mosaic (detail) 1130s Mosaic San Clemente, Rome

Apse mosaic (detail)
1130s
Mosaic
San Clemente, Rome

Apsidal arch (detail) 1130s Mosaic San Clemente, Rome

Apsidal arch (detail)
1130s
Mosaic
San Clemente, Rome

In the upper section of the apsidal arch Christ appears as World Ruler in a round aureole. At the bottom of the spandrels the two prophets Isaiah and Jeremiah, holding bands of inscription, gaze directly upward at the image of Christ. The picture shows the prophet Isaiah.

Apsidal arch (detail) 1130s Mosaic San Clemente, Rome

Apsidal arch (detail)
1130s
Mosaic
San Clemente, Rome

In the upper section of the apsidal arch Christ appears as World Ruler in a round aureole. Below Christ, Sts Peter and Clement sit enthroned.

Crash

 

Sacred Sunday: 11th and 12th Century European Cathedral Architecture

Interior view c. 1050 Photo San Miniato al Monte, Florence

Interior view
c. 1050
Photo
San Miniato al Monte, Florence

Italy remained closest to the classical language of architecture. San Miniato al Monte in Florence uses Corinthian columns and marble veneer.

Exterior view c. 1080 Photo Saint-Nectaire, Puy-de-Dôme

Exterior view
c. 1080
Photo
Saint-Nectaire, Puy-de-Dôme

This Romanesque church was built in the middle of the twelfth century in honor of St. Nectaire by the monks of La Chaise-Dieu. It was built on the site of the shrine erected by Nectaire Auvergne on Mount Cornadore. It features 103 magnificent capitals. In the mid-nineteenth century, the church was still surrounded by walls, a cemetery, a castle and a small chapel. These parts were destroyed shortly after, at a church restoration. Now surrounded by forests, the church was in the Middle Ages to the early twentieth century, at the heart of a densely populated region, where wood was scarce.

The building is a typical church of the Auvergne, with an octagonal crossing tower and a round apse with radiating chapels.

Pantheon of the Kings of León 1063-1100 Photo Royal Basilica of San Isidoro, León

Pantheon of the Kings of León
1063-1100
Photo
Royal Basilica of San Isidoro, León

The Royal Pantheon in the basilica is a funeral chapel of the kings of León. It is one of the examples of surviving Romanesque art in León. The columns are crowned with rare Visigothic capitals (re-used Roman capitals), with floral or historic designs. The 12th century painted murals are in an exceptional state of preservation and consist of an ensemble of New Testament subjects along with scenes of contemporary rural life.

Chapter house c. 1100 Photo Monastery, Osek

Chapter house
c. 1100
Photo
Monastery, Osek

The Cistercian monastery in Osek was the spiritual centre of the region of Northern Bohemia between Decin and Karlovy Vary. It has a history of more than 800-year.

The picture shows the chapter house where the abbot presided. The administrative matters were settled here.

Sainte-Foy Abbey Church: Exterior view 12th century Photo Sainte-Foy Abbey Church, Conques

Sainte-Foy Abbey Church: Exterior view
12th century
Photo
Sainte-Foy Abbey Church, Conques

The 12th-century Romanesque church at Conques, in central France, was a stopping-place on the road to Compostela. The church contains the relics of Sainte-Foy, which arrived in Conques through theft in 866.

The original chapel was destroyed in the eleventh century in order to facilitate the creation of a much larger church as the arrival of the relics of St. Foy caused the pilgrimage route to shift from Agen to Conques. The second phase of construction, which was completed by the end of the eleventh-century, included the building of the five radiating chapels, the ambulatory with a lower roof, the choir without the gallery and the nave without the galleries.

The third phase of construction, which was completed early in the twelfth-century, was inspired by the churches of Toulouse and Santiago Compostela. Like most pilgrimage churches Conques is a basilica plan that has been modified into a cruciform plan. Galleries were added over the aisle and the roof was raised over the transept and choir to allow people to circulate at the gallery level.

Sainte-Foy Abbey Church: Exterior view 12th century Photo Sainte-Foy Abbey Church, Conques

Sainte-Foy Abbey Church: Exterior view
12th century
Photo
Sainte-Foy Abbey Church, Conques

Abbey of Saint-Gilles: Façade c. 1150 Photo Saint-Gilles-du-Gard, Provence

Abbey of Saint-Gilles: Façade
c. 1150
Photo
Saint-Gilles-du-Gard, Provence

The façade of the church bears witness to the presence of Roman temples in the vicinity.

Interior view 1140s Photo Abbey Church, Saint-Denis

Interior view
1140s
Photo
Abbey Church, Saint-Denis

The picture shows the east end of the abbey church of Saint-Denis. The technique of Gothic architecture allows spaces to flow freely into one another instead of being compartmentalized.

Exterior view 12th century Photo Cathedral, Durham

Exterior view
12th century
Photo
Cathedral, Durham

Durham Cathedral was built between the late 11th and early 12th century to house the bodies of St. Cuthbert (634-687 AD) (the evangelizer of Northumbria) and the Venerable Bede (672/3-735 AD).

It attests to the importance of the early Benedictine monastic community and is the largest and finest example of Norman architecture in England. The innovative audacity of its vaulting foreshadowed Gothic architecture. The Cathedral lies within the precinct of Durham Castle, first constructed in the late eleventh century under the orders of William the Conqueror.

Interior view 1100-20 Photo Cathedral, Durham

Interior view
1100-20
Photo
Cathedral, Durham

Durham Cathedral has thick circular piers with incised (and originally painted) patterns and one of the earliest rib-vaults in Europe.

Exterior view 12th century Photo Cathedral, Ely

Exterior view
12th century
Photo
Cathedral, Ely

Ely Cathedral is the principal church of the Diocese of Ely, in Cambridgeshire, England, and is the seat of the Bishop of Ely and a suffragan bishop, the Bishop of Huntingdon. It has a cruciform plan with central crossing tower, and it was likewise one of the largest buildings under construction north of the Alps at the time.

The construction was started in 1081 and was completed in the 1180s. The 66 m high west tower of the cathedral represents the last, profusely ornamented, stage of Romanesque. The porch and upper parts are already Gothic.

Interior view 12th century Photo Cathedral, Ely

Interior view
12th century
Photo
Cathedral, Ely

Exterior view c. 1150 Photo Abbey Church, Maria Laach

Exterior view
c. 1150
Photo
Abbey Church, Maria Laach

Maria Laach Abbey is a Benedictine abbey situated on the southwestern shore of the Laacher See (Lake Laach), in the region of the Rhineland-Palatinate in Germany. The church exemplifies a particular German form of Romanesque with apses and round towers at both east and west ends.

Exterior view c. 1160 Photo Colegiata de Santa María la Mayor, Toro

Exterior view
c. 1160
Photo
Colegiata de Santa María la Mayor, Toro

The Collegiate church of Santa María la Mayor (Church of Saint Mary the Great) is a church in Toro, Spain. It was begun around 1100, and was finished in the mid-13th century. It is one of the most characteristic examples of transitional Romanesque architecture in Spain. The crossing tower is a Spanish specialty – an octagon of repeated arches with four tourelles at the corners.

Refectory 1180-1200 Photo Monastery, Alcobaça

Refectory
1180-1200
Photo
Monastery, Alcobaça

Monasteries were places of peace and order in the disturbed medieval society, organized round a routine of liturgy, work, study, and regular meetings, in which a man could spend his whole life. In the refectory, during meals a monk read from the raised pulpit.

Crash

Sacred Sunday: Mosaics in the Cathedral of Cefalù – 1145 – 1160 AD

Cathedral of Cefalu

Numerous churches were built in Sicily in the 12th Century under the Norman kings. Notable among them is the cathedral which rises above the coastal town of Cefalu’, overlooking the Mediterranean.

The cathedral of Cefalù, consecrated to the Savior and to Sts Peter and Paul, was built by Roger II, king of Sicily. The cornerstone was laid on June 7, 1131, a few months after Roger II was crowned. When Roger II died in 1154, the cathedral was still far from finished. The final consecration is documented as having taken place in 1267.

The cathedral’s chief decorations are the mosaics in the choir, which cover only the apse and bay just in front of it. Mosaics were here first employed for the decoration of a church interior in Sicily; Byzantine mosaic artists were entrusted with their creation. However, by the time the mosaics on the side walls of the choir were undertaken, native artists were working alongside the imported ones.

Unlike the medieval mosaics in Rome, where there was a deliberate return to Early Christian motifs originated in Rome, the pictorial program is wholly Byzantine in flavor.

The bust of the Pantocrator was given the most prominent spot available, namely the apse calotte. Beneath the apse calotte with its dominant Pantocrator figure, the mosaic is divided into three registers, Mary occupying the center of the top one, where she is pictured as an intercessor. In the two lower registers the apostles are pictured on a somewhat smaller scale.

The pictorial program in the bay in front of the apse consists of single figures, with no scenic depictions. The side walls present figures from the Old Testament, sainted deacons and warriors and Latin and Greek teachers of the church. Angels of various orders are distributed across the caps of the cross-ribbed vault.

1cefalu

Overall view of the apse, 1145-60. Mosaic, Cathedral, Cefalù.  Beneath the apse calotte with its Pantocrator figure the mosaic is divided into three registers. Mary occupies the center of the top one, where she is pictured as an intercessor. Turning toward her in reverence are the archangels Michael and Raphael on the left, and Gabriel and Uriel on the right. In the two lower registers, interrupted by the apse window in the center, the apostles are pictured on a somewhat smaller scale.

2cefalu

Apse mosaic (detail)
1145-60
Mosaic
Cathedral, Cefalù
The figure of Christ is much larger than all the other figures in the apse, so it can be seen as the dominant image from far back in the nave. Given the figure’s vast dimensions, it is astonishing how extremely fine the work is, especially in the head of Christ. The intricacy of his face is emphatically underscored by the subtle lines of countless tiny stones used to model the flesh tone.

3cefalu

Apse mosaic (detail)
1145-60
Mosaic
Cathedral, Cefalù
Beneath the apse calotte with its Pantocrator figure the mosaic is divided into three registers. Mary occupies the center of the top one, where she is pictured as an intercessor in the pose of an orant, seen from the front and with her hands raised in prayer.

4cefalu

Apse mosaic (detail)
1145-60
Mosaic
Cathedral, Cefalù
Mary occupies the centre of the top one, where she is pictured as an intercessor. Turning toward her in reverence are the archangels Michael and Raphael on the left, and Gabriel and Uriel on the right. In the two lower registers, interrupted by the apse window in the center, the apostles are pictured on a somewhat smaller scale.
The picture shows Sts Mark, Matthew, Peter (top), Philip, James, Andrew (bottom) on the apse wall, left to the window.

5cefalu

Apse mosaic (detail)
1145-60
Mosaic
Cathedral, Cefalù
Sts Paul, John, Luke (top), Simon, Bartholomew, Thomas (bottom) on the apse wall, right to the window.

6cefalu

North wall of the choir
1145-60
Mosaic
Cathedral, Cefalù
The pictorial program in the bay in front of the apse consists of single figures, with no scenic depictions. The side walls present figures from the Old Testament, sainted deacons and warriors and Latin and Greek teachers of the church arrayed across from each other in an asymmetrical arrangement dictated by the irregular placement of the windows.
In the upper lunette of the north wall Melchizedek is featured as half-figure in round medallion. Beneath Melchizedek are the the prophets Hosea and Moses (the latter being a 19th-century recreation). In the second register are the figures of Joel, Amos, and Obadiah, while in the third register are the deacons Peter of Alexandria, Vincent, Lawrence, and Stephen. In the fourth (bottom) register Sts Gregory the Great, Augustine, Silvester, and Dionysius the Aeropagite are represented.

7cefalu

South wall of the choir
1145-60
Mosaic
Cathedral, Cefalù
In the upper lunette of the south wall Abraham is featured as half-figure in round medallion. Beneath Abraham are the kings David and Solomon. In the second register are the prophets Jonah, Micah, and Nahum, while in the third register are the soldier saints Theodore, George, Demetrius, and Nestor. In the fourth (bottom) register Sts Nicholas, Basilius, John Chrysostom, and Gregory of Nazianz are represented.

8cefalu

Vault of the choir
1145-60
Mosaic
Cathedral, Cefalù
The pictorial program in the bay in front of the apse consists of single figures, with no scenic depictions. Angels of various orders are distributed across the caps of the cross-ribbed vault. Cherubim and seraphim are presented on both the longitudinal and horizontal axes, identified by labels, and holding standards in their hands.

Crash

Sacred Sunday: 11th Century Italian Romanesque Murals

In Italy, the period of Romanesque art lasted somewhat longer than in other countries. The rapid development of Romanesque painting, due to direct contact with the East, was intensified by the fact that Byzantine exponents of mosaic art, centered in Rome and elsewhere in the peninsula, were still carrying on their impressive work, which undoubtedly influenced fresco painters.

Its continuance is due, moreover, to the late appearance of the Gothic art style, for in fact Italian Romanesque art may be said to reach its conclusion in the hands of Old Masters from the duecento and trecento such as Duccio di Buoninsegna (c.1255-1319) – leader of the conservative Sienese School of painting – the older Florentine painter Cimabue (Cenni di Peppi) (1240-1302) and even perhaps Giotto di Bondone (1267-1337) – all of whom paved the way for the quattrocento Early Renaissance, which emerged in Florence.

There are few paintings in Italy which do not show traces of Byzantine art from one source or another. Even in the north, you can clearly recognize Byzantine characteristics surviving in Ottonian art in the Christus Pantocratorof the apsidal vault of the church of Monte Maria at Burgusio, near Bolzano.

Of course, as in other countries, each artist reconciles the Byzantine influence he has undergone with local traditions and customs, adding moreover the weight of his own creative power. The importance of his personality will be determined by the total result, according to the share assumed by the various elements.

The Martyrdom of St Vincent c. 1007 Fresco with secco applications San Vicenzo Basilica, Galliano

The Martyrdom of St Vincent
c. 1007
Fresco with secco applications
San Vicenzo Basilica, Galliano

The earliest and most important record of the revival of monumental painting on Italian soil has survived in the northern area of the Apennine peninsula, in the vicinity of Como: the apse decoration in the former parish church San Vicenzo, in Galliano near Cantu. The mural workshop which created the paintings was originated from Milan.

Last Judgment c. 1080 Fresco Sant'Angelo, Formis

Last Judgment
c. 1080
Fresco
Sant’Angelo, Formis

The Last Judgment on the western wall of the church Sant’Angelo in Formis is painted in the Byzantine tradition and refer back to the formal ideal of Classical antiquity. Group compositions as defined by isocephaly, that is the arrangement heads all at the same level, is a specific characteristic of Ancient and Byzantine art.

Angel of the Last Judgment c. 1080 Fresco Sant'Angelo, Formis

Angel of the Last Judgment
c. 1080
Fresco
Sant’Angelo, Formis

The Sant’Angelo in Formis, near Capua, is a nearly completely intact church building from the early Middle Ages whose entire interior is decorated with frescoes. The interior entrance wall is occupied by a colossal depiction of the Last Judgment. The angel shown in the picture is a detail of this fresco.

Last Judgment (detail) c. 1080 Fresco Sant'Angelo, Formis

Last Judgment (detail)
c. 1080
Fresco
Sant’Angelo, Formis

Christ in Majesty c. 1080 Fresco Sant'Angelo, Formis

Christ in Majesty
c. 1080
Fresco
Sant’Angelo, Formis

Byzantine art served as a source of inspiration for a long time for many artists in the most diverse manner, in terms of both formal style and subject manner. The main subject of Romanesque painting, the depiction of Christ in Majesty has Byzantine origin. The fresco in Formis, probably painted by a master from Constantinople, follows Byzantine traditions.

Betrayal of Christ c. 1080 Fresco Sant'Angelo, Formis

Betrayal of Christ
c. 1080
Fresco
Sant’Angelo, Formis

Last Supper c. 1080 Fresco Sant'Angelo, Formis

Last Supper
c. 1080
Fresco
Sant’Angelo, Formis

The Fight with the Dragon c. 1090 Fresco San Pietro al Monte, Civate

The Fight with the Dragon
c. 1090
Fresco
San Pietro al Monte, Civate

The fresco on the eastern wall of the entrance porch of San Pietro al Monte near Civate is one of the most important Italian contribution to Romanesque painting. It illustrates chapter 12 of the Apocalypse: beneath the mandorla containing Christ in Majesty we see the writhing body of a dragon of gigantic proportions. Fighting the monster is the heavenly host, led by the Archangel Michael.

The Fight with the Dragon (detail) c. 1090 Fresco San Pietro al Monte, Civate

The Fight with the Dragon (detail)
c. 1090
Fresco
San Pietro al Monte, Civate

The wall and vault frescoes in the former Benedictine monastery church in Lombardy, on the slopes of Monte Pedale overlooking Lake Como, were executed by five different artists or workshops at the end of the eleventh century. The frescoes, among the most superb decorations in early Romanesque painting, combines Ottoman elements with remnants of an ancient Roman illusionism, Byzantine formulae, and clearly Romanesque compositional principles.

The Heavenly Jerusalem c. 1090 Fresco San Pietro al Monte, Civate

The Heavenly Jerusalem
c. 1090
Fresco
San Pietro al Monte, Civate

The Heavenly Jerusalem is depicted in the eastern section of the vault in San Pietro al Monte, Civate, following the fresco of the formeret on the east wall. God the Father is shown seated on his throne, with the Book of Life in his lap and the Holy Lamb by his feet. The painter used the iconographical image of a garden to represent the Heavenly Jerusalem.

The End of King Herod before 1093 Fresco with secco applications Benedictine Church, Lambach

The End of King Herod
before 1093
Fresco with secco applications
Benedictine Church, Lambach

The Benedictine monastery church in Lambach, Austria, was built from 1056 to 1089. Its extensive fresco cycle (twenty-three scenes and remnants of scenes) is in a good state of preservation. It was executed by a workshop, likely located in Salzburg, which must have been familiar with the mosaics in the vestibule of San Marco in Venice. It is assumed that the chief master was schooled in one of the centres of Byzantine art export, in Aquileia or Venice.

Apse frescoes c. 1100 Fresco Basilica Sant'Anastasio, Castel Sant'Elia di Nepi

Apse frescoes
c. 1100
Fresco
Basilica Sant’Anastasio, Castel Sant’Elia di Nepi

The work done by the Master of the legend of St Clement (in San Clemente, Rome) and his workshop had a far-reaching effect in Rome and far beyond. This Roman school might even have influenced the paintings of the abbey of Castel Sant’Elia near Nepi).

St Clement celebrating the Mass c. 1100 Fresco with secco applications San Clemente, Rome

St Clement celebrating the Mass
c. 1100
Fresco with secco applications
San Clemente, Rome

The crypt of the church of San Clemente is regarded as a treasure house of Romanesque painting. It boasts ninth-century frescoes in the nave and in the narthex a cycle from the early twelfth century representing the legend of St Clement.

Relics of St Cyrillus c. 1100 Fresco San Clemente, Rome

Relics of St Cyrillus
c. 1100
Fresco
San Clemente, Rome

This fresco in the lower church of San Clemente, depicting figures in a slightly bent posture carrying the reliquary, shows similarities to Burgundian examples in the treatment of garment.

The Miraculous Rescue of a Child c. 1100 Fresco with secco applications San Clemente, Rome

The Miraculous Rescue of a Child
c. 1100
Fresco with secco applications
San Clemente, Rome

Apart from the evocations of early Christian models, on which almost all painting in the city of Rome was based, it was ultimately the local factor of antiquity that determined the character of Romanesque painting in Rome more strongly than anywhere else. The most significant examples of this style are the murals in the lower church of San Clemente, the church dedicated to the pope whose relics are stored there.

The scene depicting the miraculous rescue of a child from the sea of Azof by St Clemens was painted by an artist whose style is marked by unusual contours, shining highlights, and especially decorative arrangements. From the depth where the pope’s body had been submerged, the legend goes, a marble chapel had arisen. Once a year the masses of water receded, making the chapel accessible to pilgrims. One day a mother last her small child there, but found him again the next year, unhurt. Below this scene we see a medallion portrait of Clemens, flanked by donor figures.

Crash

Wednesday Reader: X-rays Allow Volcano-Charred Scrolls to be Read

Hundreds of rolled, charred papyrus scrolls that were buried in ash in Herculaneum after the eruption of Mount Vesuvius in A.D. 79 could finally be read, thanks to a new technique that uses X-ray tomography. Here, letters from one of the interior layers of a charred scroll can be read. In the top the sequence of Greek capital letters spells PIPTOIE (pi-iota-pi-tau- omicron-iota-epsilon); in the bottom the letter sequence of the next line, EIPOI (epsilon-iota-pi-omicron-iota) Credit: Mocella et al, Nature Communications

Hundreds of rolled, charred papyrus scrolls that were buried in ash in Herculaneum after the eruption of Mount Vesuvius in A.D. 79 could finally be read, thanks to a new technique that uses X-ray tomography. Here, letters from one of the interior layers of a charred scroll can be read. In the top the sequence of Greek capital letters spells PIPTOIE (pi-iota-pi-tau- omicron-iota-epsilon); in the bottom the letter sequence of the next line, EIPOI (epsilon-iota-pi-omicron-iota)
Credit: Mocella et al, Nature Communications

Precious ‪‎scrolls blackened by the eruption of the Vesuvius volcano in AD 79 may become readable again, thanks to 21st century technology, according to scientists.

Hundreds of ancient papyrus scrolls that were buried nearly 2,000 years ago after the eruption of Mount Vesuvius could finally be read, thanks to a new technique.

The X-ray-based method can be used to decipher the charred, damaged texts that were found in the ancient town of Herculaneum without having to unroll them, which could damage them beyond repair, scientists say.

One problem with previous attempts to use X-rays to read the scrolls was that the ancient writers used a carbon-based material from smoke in their ink, said study co-author Vito Mocella, a physicist at the National Research Council in Naples, Italy.

“The papyri have been burnt, so there is not a huge difference between the paper and the ink,” Mocella told Live Science. That made it impossible to decipher the words written in the documents.

If the new method works, it could be used to reveal the secrets of one of the few intact libraries from antiquity, the researchers said.

Buried in ash

Both the Roman city of Pompeii and the nearby, wealthy seaside town of Herculaneum were wiped out when Mount Vesuvius erupted in A.D. 79, killing thousands of people and covering fine villas in ash and lava.

In the 1750s, workers uncovered a library in a villa thought to be the home of a Roman statesman. The site, known as the Villa of the Papyri, contained nearly 2,000 ancient papyrus scrolls that had been charred by the volcanic heat.

The papyrus scrolls found in a Herculaneum villa in the 1750s were badly charred by the eruption of Mount Vesuvius in A.D. 79. Since their discovery in the 1700s, researchers have tried many techniques to unroll the charred, delicate texts. Credit: E. Brun

The papyrus scrolls found in a Herculaneum villa in the 1750s were badly charred by the eruption of Mount Vesuvius in A.D. 79. Since their discovery in the 1700s, researchers have tried many techniques to unroll the charred, delicate texts.
Credit: E. Brun

Since then, historians have tried many ingenious (and some not-so-ingenious) methods for reading the damaged scrolls.

“They poured mercury on them, they soaked them in rosewater — all kinds of crazy stuff,” said Jennifer Sheridan Moss, a papyrologist at Wayne State University in Detroit and the president of the American Society of Papyrologists.

From the few scrolls that could be unrolled and deciphered, historians determined that the library was filled mainly with writings on Epicurean philosophy — a school of thought that holds, among other things, that the goal of human life is happiness, characterized by the absence of pain and mental strife — and was part of the collection of a prolific writer named Philodemus.

“Most of what we know of Epicureanism is from these papyri,” Mocella said.

Though some of the methods used to unroll the scrolls, such as a clever unrolling machine designed by a monk in the 1700s, were fairly successful, most wound up damaging the fragile documents.

Revealing secrets

Historians decided that the potential for damage was too great, and thus locked the remaining scrolls, still rolled up, in the National Library of Naples in Italy. A few years ago, researchers tried to read the scrolls without unrolling them, using X-ray tomography, which takes X-rays from multiple angles to recreate a 3D image of an object.

But this process is based on the fact that hard, dense materials absorb more X-rays than softer materials, and it didn’t work for the scrolls because the smoke-based ink was too similar to the charred paper.

So the team looked to a similar technique, called X-ray phase-contrast tomography. Because the letters on the papyrus are slightly raised in height, the waves of X-rays that hit the letters would be reflected back with a slightly shifted phase, compared with the waves that hit the underlying material. By measuring this phase difference, the team was able to reproduce the shape of the letters inside the rolled scrolls.

So far, the team has analyzed six scrolls that were given to Napoleon Bonaparte as gifts and are now housed at the French Institute in Paris. They have deciphered some of the Greek letters and words written inside the rolled-up, burned, smushed scrolls.

Still, deciphering the words in the innermost layers was extremely challenging, the authors wrote in their paper.

Promising technique

The texts on the scrolls are unlikely to yield earth-shattering insights, given how many of the other scrolls have been deciphered, Moss said.

But the new technique holds promise for other burnt papyri as well, Moss said.

“Most people now believe there is a whole other library under there in that Villa of the Papyri,” Moss told Live Science. That’s because, in the Roman world, most libraries held all the Greek treatises in one section and all the Latin books in another, she said.

Archaeologists have a good idea of where the Latin library may be, but so far, they’ve found no trace of the Latin texts, in part because noxious gases released from the ground make the site difficult to excavate. But if they do find the hidden library, this new technique could become very useful there, Moss said.

“We could easily find more things that are in bad shape like this, and then the technology could be applied to them,” Moss said.

The new technique was described yesterday (Jan. 20) in the journal Nature Communications.

Crash

Wine and Cycling: Italian Piedmont

it5

If you’re thinking about fall cycling with a hint of wine in the Italian regions, this may be a good thought

The northwestern region of Piedmont has Italy’s most prestigious red wine tradition and is home to the noble Nebbiolo grape, which is transformed into complex and age-worthy Barolo, dubbed “the king of wines and the wine of kings”. As the tagline would imply, Barolo was associated with royalty, in this case the Savoy dynasty, which unified Italy in the late 19th century.

Nebbiolo is also a protagonist in Barbaresco and several other regional appellations, but there are simpler, more accessible and extremely pleasant red wines made from Dolcetto and Barbera grapes; these fall into a huge range of geographical appellations.

it7

Though lesser-known, there are food-friendly white grapes like Arneis and Timorasso. But the best known white variety is Moscato, which is the basis of sparkling Asti Spumante and the sweet dessert wine Moscato d’Asti.

Even though Piedmont is a very developed wine region with a long history of commercial success, few vineyards are set up for spontaneous visits so be sure to book winery visits well in advance.

it3

Travel Langhe

Robert and Leslie Alexander, both certified sommeliers, have spent the past 15 years in the wine education and importation business and bring their passion and devotion to Piedmont to their tours and tastings. Their focus is on the production regions of the Langhe, Roero and Monferrato. The Alexanders customize tours to fit individuals and groups. Their principal offerings include wine tastings and vineyard visits, but the company can also organize hiking excursions, cooking classes, and tours linked to seasonal ingredients and festivals.

In addition to touring and concierge services, the Alexanders are the authors ofPiedmont Wine, Food & More, an insider’s guide to the region, available for mobile devices.

From €175 per person, +39 339 692 0448, travellanghe.com

it2

Cellar Tours

Cellar Tours arranges exclusive private tours of Piedmont for VIP guests. A guide and driver meet guests in Milan and embark on an 8-day, luxury-oriented excursion through the vineyards and restaurants of the neighboring region. The tour includes visits to producers such as Walter Massa, Luigi Einaudi and Fratelli Mossio, as well as estates in La Morra and Barolo and to the historic cellars of Canelli.

Cellar Tours combines tastings at premier Barolo and Barbaresco estates with visits to lesser-known boutique wineries in Gavi and Tortona. Also on the itinerary are vermouth and chocolate tastings in Turin and dinner at Piazza Duomo in Alba and Combal Zero near Turin, two of the most critically acclaimed contemporary restaurants in Italy.

From €500 per person, +13104968061, cellartours.com

it1

Tasting Tours

Silvia Aprado’s Tasting Tours company is specialized in the food and wine of Piedmont and Liguria. A trained sommelier, Aprado can craft and tailor tours to fit the needs of independent travelers, tour operators, corporate groups and business travelers. While all itineraries can be customized, some examples of standard offerings include Grand Barolo, a full-day immersion into the king of wines; Wine, Cheese and Chocolate, which pairs local wines with regional specialties, and Grand Barbaresco, a day-long tour focusing on this outstanding Nebbiolo-based wine. For white wine drinkers, the full day Monferrato Wine Tour concentrates on sparkling Asti Spumante and sweet Moscato d’Asti.

From €110 per person, +39 0141 948467, tastingtours.it

it4

Piedmont Food and Wine

Simon and Julia Barnaby’s Piedmont Food and Wine company is dedicated to revealing the region’s unique enogastronomic culture by introducing guests to the growers and producers they have met over the past two decades. The Barnabys are both certified wine experts with WSET Advanced level qualifications. The company offers half and full day tours, as well as longer thematic trips designed to celebrate a seasonal specialty or tailored to fit client interests.

Their Red Wine Tour visits Barbera, Barbaresco and Dolcetto producers, including the lovely, family-run Cantina del Glicine and their 17th century cellar. The Truffle Hunting and Wine Tasting joins a truffle hunter and his dog to find black or white truffles, depending on the season. After the hunt, the truffles are paired with pasta, cheese, meat and local wines. The Alba White Truffle Festival and Barolo Wine Tour, available in the fall only, concentrates on the region’s most famous pairing.

From €85 per person, +39 34 755 77891, piedmont-foodandwine.com

it9

Bike Sherpa

Germany-based Bike Sherpa offers bike tours throughout Europe, all of which are led by local experts who provide exclusive access to their region’s local treasures. Their cycling tour of Piedmont, a 7-night/8-day itinerary covering nearly 220 miles, includes accommodations and luggage transfers. The tour focuses mainly on wine, with plenty of culinary interest woven in.

The group beings in Turin and heads through the Roero, Langhe, Asti and Gavi wine producing areas for a full immersion in one of Italy’s most diverse and acclaimed enological destinations. Highlights include tasting wine at Slow Food University in Pollenzo, trying Nebbiolo-based wines at the Barolo castle, and dipping in the natural spas of Acqui Terme. Bike Sherpa also offers a self-guided tour following the same itinerary, which includes accommodations and luggage transfers and detailed tour information.

From €1075 per person, +1 646 403 4432, bikesherpa.com

Crash